A Face Drawn in Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present
Leadership, innovation, diversity, inclusiveness, sharing, accountability—such is the resounding administrative refrain we keep hearing in the contemporary Western university. What kinds of benefits does this refrain generate? For whom? What discursive incitements undergird such benefits? Although there are innumerable discussions of Michel Foucault in the English-speaking academy, seldom is his work used systematically to unravel the dead ends and potentialities of humanistic inquiry as embedded in these simple but dynamic questions.
Rey Chow takes up this challenge by articulating the plight of the humanities in the age of global finance and neoliberal mores through a resharpened focus on Foucault’s concept “outside.” This general discussion is followed by a series of micro-arguments about several loosely linked topics: the biopolitics of literary study, visibilities and invisibilities, race and racism, sound/voice/listening, and confession and self-entrepreneurship. Against what she polemicizes as the moralistic-entrepreneurial norming of knowledge production, Chow foregrounds a nonutilitarian approach, stressing anew the intellectual and pedagogical objectives fundamental to humanistic inquiry: How to process, analyze, and evaluate different types of texts across languages and disciplines; how to form and sustain viable arguments; how to rethink familiar problems through less known as well as very well-known sources, figures, and methods. Above all, she asks in an abidingly humanistic spirit, how not to know all the answers before the questions have been posed.
Rey Chow is Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Duke University. She is the author of Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking About Capture (2012) and Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience (Columbia, 2014), among other works, and the coeditor of Sound Objects (2019).